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Why The Tattooist Of Auschwitz is essential viewing


Why The Tattooist Of Auschwitz is essential viewing


The adaptation of the bestselling book, starting this week on Sky Showcase, promises to be a powerful and memorable series about love, hope and survival

By Chris Miller, Feature Writer

Lali, a young Slovakian Jew, is transported to the  Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942. There, he is given the job of Tätowierer, tattooist, charged with marking the prisoners with the numbers they will carry for the rest of their lives. 


In the course of his duties he meets a woman named Gita. In spite of the horrors that surround them every day, the two fall in love. They vow to each other that they will survive, no matter what, and when their ordeal is finally over, they will find each other and build a life together. 


Decades later, Lali told his story to a writer. The result was Heather Morris’s hugely successful, critically acclaimed bestseller The Tattooist Of Auschwitz, and now this heart-rending narrative is a major new six-part drama, beginning at 9pm on Thursday 2 May on Sky Showcase HD (CH 109).


It is, of course, in part a story about the evil that humans can do in the name of corrupt ideology, and about the specific horrors of the Holocaust. But it’s also a story about survival, courage, hope and ultimately, love. 


Here’s why we think it’s one of this year’s essential TV series.


Harvey Keitel is spellbinding as Lali

In the series, unlike in the book, the older Lali (who died in 2006) features as a character recounting his experiences. This means we see not only the beginning of Lali and Gita’s story but also the end, as he tells of a love that endured far beyond the end of the war – which in some ways never really ended for concentration camp survivors.


He’s played by Harvey Keitel, who has been associated with some of the greatest and most distinctive cinema directors of the past 50 years (including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson), but has made only rare forays into TV. Now 84, Keitel – the son of pre-war Jewish immigrants to the US from eastern Europe – says of the role of Lali: “My initial reaction was to bear witness. It’s our duty to condemn the barbarism and inhumanity inflicted on Jews, Roma and Sinti, political dissidents and any of the communities that were persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust.”


“There were moments when I couldn’t tell the difference between my father and Harvey Keitel,” says Lali’s son, Gary Sokolov. “He was my father on every single level. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have spent so much time in tears. There is a saying in Jewish culture, kavod – which is the ultimate level of respect – and he gave that to my dad.”


It has a talented and committed cast

London-born actor Jonah Hauer-King’s highest profile role to date is Prince Eric in the live-action The Little Mermaid. Playing Lali as a young man is a real left turn, but he was one of the first actors cast and, Morris says, “was so invested in wanting the story to be told properly… He is so dedicated to his work.” Of Anna Próchniak, who plays Gita, executive producer Claire Mundell says: “She has an intensity, strength and resilience to her as well as this inner light.”


Melanie Lynskey, who plays Morris, had a career breakthrough as a young actor in Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures but has had a recent surge of success with roles in Mrs American, Yellowjackets and The Last Of Us; director Tali Shalom-Ezer describes her performance as “powerful”. In the role of sadistic camp guard Baretzki, German actor Jonas Nay (Deutschland 83) found it understandably difficult to, as he says, “get my head around playing a character that embodies pure evil”. Mundell says he plays Baretzki “in such a chilling, unhinged way that is full of depth and unsettling emotion”. 


The book resonated with millions 

The book that resulted from Heather Morris’s interviews with Lali Sokolov was a global success: it has sold more than 13 million copies and been translated into 17 languages. There are few stories more inspiring than love against the odds, especially when the story is a real person’s lived experience.


Morris describes her book as “a work of fiction based on the memory of one man”. It’s not an academic text, or an attempt to document the reality of events at Auschwitz. It is, above all, a celebration of love’s power even in the darkest of times – something we all want to hold on to.


It’s careful about authenticity

While Morris cautions that The Tattooist Of Auschwitz is not history, the production took great care to portray the camp as accurately as possible, employing writer, film-maker and Holocaust expert Naomi Gryn – whose father was an Auschwitz survivor – as historical and Jewish cultural consultant. Gryn says elements of Lali’s narrative must result from flawed memory, such as the use of penicillin to cure infection before it was widely available, and advised the programme-makers to make it more historically accurate.


“Holocaust survivors are dying out, so first-hand witnesses will no longer be around,” Gryn says. “We will have to turn to different modes of storytelling to keep this history in our consciousness. Drama is a natural way to begin to process this dark chapter in human history; to help make the indescribable a little more intelligible for the rising generation.” 


The music is like nothing you’ve ever heard 

Hans Zimmer brought more than just his Oscar-winning composition skills (The Lion King, Dune) to the series’ score. The German-American composer, whose mother fled the Nazis in 1938, says that “when you enter the land of Auschwitz, you are entering a world that you cannot imagine – therefore we have to make music in a way that we cannot imagine music to be. It felt important to write music that was on the one hand deeply human and the other deeply disturbing, cold, of another planet. A planet that we never want to visit.” 


Zimmer worked with fellow composer and pianist Kara Talve to create music with “an overarching theme of horror, isolation, loneliness, survival… The two main instruments are piano and violin; the latter can sound beautiful, but it can very quickly sound scary, alienating, cold and inhuman.” Talve played a piano that belonged to her grandmother Mathilde, who escaped from the Nazis in occupied Paris. And the end credits play over “Love Will Survive”, written and performed by Barbra Streisand in her first venture into music for TV.  


When is The Tattooist Of Auschwitz on TV?

The Tattooist Of Auschwitz begins at 9pm on Thursday 2 May on Sky Showcase HD (CH 109), when all episodes will be available in On Demand.

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